A FIGURE IN HIDING

In the curtained bathroom of his room above a Chinese restaurant on Mulberry Street, he stands naked, the sweat pouring down him in wormy rivulets.

CORRECTION

“Rivulets” is fine, but “wormy” is not a word he would have used. What about “sinuous?”

He always tried to introduce at least one unusual word per chapter. Boys need to build their vocabularies. The pell-mell cadence of modern life provides too few opportunities for the development of the young male mind.

BACKSTORY

When he was a boy in Washtub, North Dakota, he would learn one new word every day. His mother would pick it out in the morning, taking the big, brown dictionary from its shelf under the shop counter. By opening it to any random page and sliding her finger down and down, and maybe down again just so, she would find the word, define it, and then if he could use the word in an appropriate context before sundown, without stretching or forcing the conversation, he could have eight inches of licorice rope from one of the canisters on the shelf behind the register.

He could ride a trickle of words, his mother told him, all the way downriver. Until the trickle widened, deepened, casting him out upon the waves of some more meaningful kind of life.

BOUNDED IN A NUTSHELL

Since their first big case, chronicled in The Tower Treasure, the brothers had followed in their father’s footsteps. The young sleuths had often been in tight spots. But always their quick, cool thinking had enabled them to outwit their adversaries. This was as true of the hairpin turns of logic which they had negotiated in The Shore Road Mystery as it would be of the diabolical coordinates they would triangulate with their new radar equipment in The Mystery of the Devil’s Paw.

FOOLISH BEFORE A CROWD

He steers his powerful yellow convertible up the winding mountain roads and over the diffident green shoulders of the Poconos. At an Army surplus store at the edge of Coker’s Hollow, he buys a canvas knapsack, a blanket, a mason jar full of kerosene, and a tin canteen with a sewn-on cover and a screw-top lid. At a liquor store, he purchases two fifths of Jameson and pours half of one bottle into the canteen.

The first time he came here was with Fumiko, during the war. During the European campaign, he’d done some writing for the Department of Information, adapting some of the books as propaganda pieces. The resulting tracts, thinly disguised how-to manuals for young saboteurs, were translated into German and Italian and air-dropped into Berlin, Munich, Dresden, Rome, and Milan.

He’d worked with Fumiko on the cultural aspects of translation to Japanese, but the rumor of the Nazi’s impending defeat and the acceleration of the Pacific campaign eventually brought a halt to the whole program. Leaving him with nothing to do at night but collapse next to Fumiko with his nose brushing the perfumed, translucent skin of her upper arm. His marriage was over by then. Of the children, now only Prito, the baby, would speak to him for more than ten minutes at a time without resorting to that curt tone of disdain used by the others: Yeah, Pop. Whadaya want?

He’d brought her here, hoping to escape the stultifying closeness that had been closing in around them. Convenient to blame the city, but maybe it was something in himself, some internal wiring, a saboteur’s gambit, that would always lead—tick by deadly tick—to the destruction of his happiness. Or maybe happiness was just one of those words, like “yellow,” or “beauty,” or “mystery,” that could not be sufficiently defined because it did not, in truth, exist.

Now Fumiko, too, is gone, absorbed in her code breaking work on the Sino-Soviet border. The boy-detective stories, his bread and butter, have been given over to a shadowy syndicate with its own made-up name and a backstory straight out of one of his books: a former shopkeeper, writing by night on scrap sheets of butcher paper. The payoff, a large lump sum, has left him materially taken care of. Mentally, at a loss.

It was after Fumiko left that he had started his novel, the first piece of writing he could bring himself to think of by that name.  Everything else he thought of as tales, stories, dime-store pulp. The novel had an epigraph, a bit of wisdom from Confucius that was painted on a wall hanging at the Enchanted Serpent, where he and Fumiko had liked to work. From the epigraph he had taken the title.

He parks in a turnoff, just down the road from the falls at Icehouse Rock. The light is getting blue and dim, and he still has an hour of hiking until he can camp at the spiral bridge. He unlocks the trunk and removes his valise. In one corner of the bag, beneath a snarl of dress socks, there is a fat rectangular bundle tied with twine.  He puts that in the knapsack with the rest of his purchases. Except the canteen, which he clips to his belt.

As the birds settle in for the evening, the quieter sounds become more prominent. He feels his way along the path, beginning to hear the trickle of water from Bishop’s Creek, down in the ravine. He takes a slug of Jameson and shudders at the bite it seems to take from his heart.

“Did you name that boy after yourself?” He and Fumiko were gathering sticks to make a fire. “The older one, I mean. Frank.”

“After my father. He died when I was just a baby.” It was what he always said, what he told himself. But hadn’t he always felt some of the older boy’s solemnity, not to mention the weight of being always the protector? Who was he protecting? His folks? His kids? Fumiko? He had protected no one. Together with Fumiko, he built the fire atop the natural helix of eroded schist. They slept together under a sky crowded with stars, right out in the middle of the air. In her sleep, beside him on the lumpy bedroll, Fumiko tossed and turned, whispering some of her favorite English words, the ones she’d learned from him, under her breath: “uppercut,” “careening,” “madcap,” “jalopy.”

A half moon shines above the clearing ahead of him, where the stone span corkscrews over the gaping dark.  He steps onto the bridge, swigging from the canteen to steady his leaping stomach. Standing as close to the edge as he can bear, he pushes the opened bundle toward the edge with his toe. He soaks the papers with kerosene and hurls the empty jar into the ravine.

During the reading, at an old church on Bleecker Street, the audience had been quiet. At first, he’d taken it for respect, but the whispers and the chortles afterward made things clear enough: The Clue of the Twisted Syntax…No, no. Wait. Wait. I’ve got one. The Case of the Cryptic Claptrap…How about: The Hackneyed Symbol Mystery?

No sound but the distant trickle of water, the rising, pulsing insect hum. The page he lights to touch off the rest reads, “for Fumiko,” and below that: “Before a great man begins something great, he must first appear foolish before a crowd.”

He sleeps again atop the spiral bridge. Rises before dawn, awakened by some burl of worry in his side, loads his knapsack, and continues on his way.

A BRIEF SCUFFLE

The cab lurched forward, then swung round and drew up to the corner. Joe was the first out the door. “Hang on a moment, fellows!” he cried.

“Stop!” cried Sandyman, leaping the last three steps and pulling an automatic from his jacket pocket. The short, wiry college instructor jeered at them. “You boys are finished.”

“Watch out, Frank!”

Joe dived clear just in time, assisted by a lightning grab by Frank. With a cry of astonishment, Art Phipps whirled around, lowering his gun as he did so. At the same time, the captain, who had been waiting for an opening, leapt forward, seized the fellow’s arm and pried the weapon from his grasp.

Frank avoided the blow, then struggled with the man. A clenched fist caught Frank a glancing blow, sending him sprawling.

Joe lunged at two of the men, breaking their concentration. Frank doubled Quinn with a charge to the solar plexus, then spun past the other two men toward the mouth of the cave.

His quarry plunged on into the dark, but Frank caught up to him swiftly. There came a cry of dismay. The darkness was split by a ribbon of flame.

THE MISSING CHUM

Twelve more miles of twisting trail take him to a high-sided clearing, a stone’s throw from the top of the ridge. A roughed out cabin sits near the edge of the wood on the far side, smoke rising from the stone chimney. The sun, poised just above the ridge, throws long shadows  across the dry meadow grass. Another day is almost gone. He’s had to stop a lot to sit. And when he sits, he drinks.

As he crosses towards the cabin, a sound like a disgruntled bee creases the air to the right of his head. A split second later, a rifle report echoes down the surrounding hills.

He dives behind a low boulder, barely high enough for cover. He tries to yell but sound won’t start in his throat. He clears it and yells, as loud as he can manage: “Gummey! It’s Franklin! Don’t shoot!”

There is a silence of an uncertain nature. After a count of fifty, he stretches his head carefully from behind the rock and repeats the call.

A second shot pings off the front of the rock. He crouches as low as he can and folds his hands above his head. A gruff voice calls from somewhere inside. “That you, Franklin?”

“I said it was me! What the hell!”

Gummey waits for him on the porch, wearing a moth-eaten slouch hat and a sheepish expression. The hat’s chinstrap dangles, unfastened, along Gummey’s darkly bristled jaw. Gummey offers a leathery hand, covered in grime.

“You can’t be too careful,” Gummey says. “These days.”

“Gummey,” he says, taking the hand. “Forget it. I’m just awfully glad to see you.”

“What brings you up here, Franklin? I can’t say as I was expecting you.”

“It’s not like you’ve got a phone. I’d have written a letter, Gumm, but you’ve gotta admit, it would have died on the way.”

“That’s true. I see the postman coming, I generally reach for my gun.”

“You’re a crazy person, you know that?”

Gummy looks at his feet. “I know, Franklin. I know.”

Now he feels bad. He’d meant it lightly, forgetting it was actually the truth. “Still,” he says. “Kind of rude of me to make a case out of that now. Mind if we head inside? I’m a quart low.”

“You’ve never been shy about making cases.” Gummey waves him into the cabin. “But I appreciate it.”

For supper there is haunch of venison roasted over the kitchen fire, and mushroom gravy and potatoes, and more whiskey. Gummey doesn’t say much. He seems restless, getting up frequently to poke the fire or look out the window.

“What is it, Gumm? You expecting more company?”

Gummey mutters, “I thought I heard something outside.” He’s standing just to the left of the yellow window curtain, as though trying to stay in its shadow.

“Probably just a bear or something, don’t you think?”

“Maybe.”

“You moved out here for your nerves, right Gumm?”

Gummey turns. Scowls. “What’s your point?”

“No point. Just making conversation.”

“Right.”

“Well, you just seem pretty nervous. That’s all.”

“You know what, Franklin? The hell with you.” Instead of approaching, he takes a step toward the door. Like he’s thinking of storming out after he’s said his piece. “You come all the way out here with no notice, eat my goddamn food, and then get up on your fucking high horse –”

“Jesus, Gumm. Forget it. Sit down, okay?”

Gummey doesn’t move.

“I guess I’ve thrown you off. But you’re doing okay, otherwise? That’s my only concern. I’m not trying to bad mouth you. I just wanted to see you. Check up on you. So I’ve seen you. I’ll leave right now if you need me to.”

It’s like a slash with a knife, venting all of Gummey’s bluster at once. Gummey sighs, then stumbles across the room and sags back into his chair.

“I’m sorry, Franklin.”

“No sorry necessary. And I mean it. No hard feelings. I’ll just go.”

“Don’t go.” Gummey gets up again. “I’ve got some cigars. And something else. Just wait.”

He disappears to the back of the cabin and is back in two minutes with a box of cigars and a bundle of wax paper. He unwraps the bundle, and holds out a huge coil of licorice rope.

“In the way of a peace offering,” Gummey says.

The licorice is strong and sweet. He gets that rush of feeling and memory, so sudden the light in the room seems to change, all objects growing faint and dark. It’s a good thing he’s sitting down. He chases the licorice with a belt of whiskey. Then selects a cigar and leans forward to light it from the fire.

“Thanks, Gumm. That’s good stuff. The licorice I mean. The cigar is terrible.”

Gummey laughs. “I ordered a crate of it. Amish fellows brought it up by mule. Took so long, they had to stay overnight. Some scintillatin’ conversation, I’ll tell you.”

They sit there, smoking cigars, eating licorice. Not talking. Finally, Gummey stretches and stands up, as if to signal he’s off to bed.

“Those dunkers’ll bring me as much licorice as I want,” Gummey says. “They always say it’s no trouble.”

He starts back to his bunk, then pauses and turns back. “But no matter how much I ask, they won’t never say how many times you’d have to double it to hang a man.”

A BIT TOO MUCH OPIUM

A sudden shaft of moonlight limned a slim figure looming from the shore end of the dock. Frank froze. Joe dashed into the shadows.

“Wait!” Frank called.

Joe froze.

Tony, their dark haired classmate, stood, shouting and waving from the other end of the dock.

Frank shouted. Joe shouted. Tony rushed up.

“Tony!” the boys cried in unison. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“My uncle owns a cabin near a dock just like this one,” Tony said cheerfully. “Sometimes I come down here to remind myself why I never visit him.”

Both boys agreed that this made sense.

“Is that The Sea Squirt?” Tony asked, putting his foot on the gunwale.

“This?” Joe said. “Nah. It’s our outboard canoe, The Leonard.”

Together with Tony, the pair raised the battens aft and all three stood silent in appreciation of The Leonard’s powerful two-cycle motor.

“She’s a honey alright,” said Tony

“No lie,” Joe said proudly.

Suddenly, Tony became serious. A searchlight swept across the bay.

Frank and Joe exchanged glances.

Tony knit his brows together and flexed his knees.

Frank pointed to a pair of ladies’ underwear, floating near some weeds along shore. Joe shrugged.

Frank took a piece of paper, rolled it into his typewriter, and hammered out a few lines. Pulling it out, he showed the paper to Joe.

“Okay,” Joe said sheepishly. “I guess.” He went up on shore to find a pole to fish out the underwear.

Chuckling, and continuing to chuckle, the boys made their way back to the waiting car.

A FIGURE IN HIDING

In the curtained bathroom of his room above a Chinese restaurant on Mulberry Street, he stands naked, the sweat pouring down him in sinuous rivulets.  He fingers his testicles absently with his left hand as he studies the little shelf on the wall next to his shaving mirror: a packet of razor blades, a bottle of sleeping pills. He reaches out with his right hand.

“Mistah Deekson! Mistah Deekson!” The singsong call comes faintly through the door, along with Mrs. Choy’s fluttery knock. He opens his mouth to answer, but no sound comes out. He closes his eyes, but outside the heavy lids the world is still there.

He counts to ten. To twenty. Still it comes. The tiny knuckles tapping at the flimsy pine door. “Mistah! Mistah Deekson!”

For a moment, silence. Then, the scrape of the landlady’s key.

He stands absolutely still. The curtain, after all, is drawn. Again, he tries to speak, but his throat is rusted shut. The latch clicks and the door scrapes against the frame and comes open.

“Mistah Deekson?” A pause, then more quietly: “Guess you really not here?”

Drops of sweat escape the folds of flesh along his jawline to slip to the floor, dissolve in the dust. Afraid that something of him might show through the threadbare curtain, he inches carefully to the tub and climbs over the edge, his backside stretched out along the cold porcelain. Not bad.

In the opposite corner of the room his television clicks on softly; he hears the whine of the tubes heating up. “Hmmm,” says Mrs. Choy, her voice at a new, sarcastic pitch. She seems convinced now he is not at home. “Not so able to pay rent, but plenty enough dough for new TV. Dead beat!”

He got the two-year-old set from a Cuban shopkeeper down on Houston street—a fan of the books from way back—in exchange for a signed copy of an early edition. On the cover of that book, the boys, wearing caps of brown and blue, crouched behind unkempt shrubbery. They seemed startled by the yellow light that shone, even in broad daylight, from a not-very-sinister-looking tower. Though later editions featured a more dramatic cover in darker hues, there was something about the old cover that caused him to prefer it.

But he has the TV now. Which is also good.

From the bottom of the tub, looking straight up, he sees a brown water stain on the ceiling in the shape of Alaska. He finds Juneau. Anchorage. Kodiak. At a certain point, exotic settings became de rigueur, probably as the credibility of Bayport’s many secret caves became strained through over-use. But you could at least offer a geography lesson along with the same old story. Secret warnings, disappearing floors, Viking symbols, sinister signposts.

Chunk, chunk, chunk. The landlady turns the tuning knob impatiently. Watery bugles bleat out a cavalry call, and there are popcorn blasts of gunfire.

“Cowboy movie,” Mrs. Choy sighs heavily. “Oh, boy.”  But she does not turn it off.

He curls himself, like a sodden load of laundry, around the bottom of the basin. And dreams of drowning.

UP FOR GRABS

The Case of the Enchanted Serpent
The Clue of the Licorice Noose
The Landlady’s Key
The Saboteur’s Gambit
Cahoots! A Musical

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Robin Beery lives in Indianapolis and is a writer/producer at Well Done Marketing.

Featured photo modified from Hardy Boys 06 – The Shore Road Mystery, by Chris Drumm (https://www.flickr.com/photos/cdrummbks/4678839780/in/set-72157624098757955) via Flickr Creative Commons.